Bringing news to the small screen


  • Letters
  • Friday, 03 Oct 2008

The Newspaper Association of America recently launched a collection of case studies that cover the many aspects of mobile web for newspapers.

DETAILED case studies for the New York Times, Reuters and the Cincinnati Enquirer were all very fascinating. But the paper that I found most interesting was that entitled “Wireless News: Small Sites, Big Returns”, which gives a broad overview of what it takes for a typical newspaper to go mobile.

That paper looked at the mobile web offerings €“ which are quite good €“ of two not-so-big newspapers, the Houston Chronicle and the Arizona Republic.

When the Houston Chronicle launched its mobile website (mobile.chron.com) in the middle of last year, page views were unspectacular. They were clocking in at only 300 or 400 a month, which is nothing for a newspaper site. Because the mobile site hardly generated any traffic, the management didn’t see fit to invest further in the site. They just kept it going.

To everyone’s surprise, though, the mobile site’s traffic surged to 100,000 page views a month by the beginning of this year. Without adding anything new and without any special promotion or marketing efforts, traffic grew on its own. It was obvious by then that the mobile site deserved special attention.

“People were using our mobile site with absolutely no effort on our part,” says Sam Brown, executive director of online sales and business development for the Houston Chronicle.

“We realised we had to put a lot more effort into it to attract more people and to keep them coming back.”

The reason for the spike in traffic growth is simple, says the paper. With more and more people buying smart phones that can easily access the Internet, they will naturally want to consume more content through their phones.

Conventional wisdom among mobile web developers is that consumers use the mobile web differently from fixed web. With the latter, people browse and take their time to consume content that they find online. With the former, it’s more a case of consuming bite-sized information like news alerts, sports scores and movie times.

Nevertheless, news articles are still in high demand. And they are a key component of the Houston Chronicle’s mobile web offering. They are re-purposed for the mobile web, though.

According to Brown, feature-length, multi-page stories are best saved for the print or online edition. Such articles do not make it to the mobile edition.

News articles are also a popular item in the Arizona Republic’s mobile site. When it launched the site two years ago, it placed a section with information on restaurants, bars and movie times at the top of the mobile screen, assuming that was what people would in all probability be accessing most.

Traffic statistics however showed that most of the readers were accessing the site for breaking news. Naturally, news was installed as the top item on the mobile screen and the number of headlines was increased from six to eight. At the end of the day, people go to news sites for … well, news.

That doesn’t mean you can’t offer special functionalities that are exclusive to the mobile site. The Houston Chronicle offers school sports scores (which are taken very seriously in Texas), and the Arizona Republic offers hiking trail and camp-ground information.

A surprisingly popular mobile feature, according to the paper, is picture galleries, which have been successful at the Houston Chronicle and the Arizona Republic.

This is surprising given how small a typical phone screen is.

Even when viewing pictures on an iPhone, it’s hardly a good experience. But photo galleries have proven to be popular among mobile readers.

The Arizona Republic’s mobile site is a stripped down version of its website AZcentral.com.

It is set up so that it updates automatically in line with the mother site.

Mobile traffic has tripled in the past year to 750,000 page views a month, according to the paper.

Although its statistics are basic, one fact that has interested the Arizona Republic is that just as many people appear to access the mobile site on weekends as do during the week - unlike the mother site, which sees a dip in numbers on weekends.

Mobile behaviour is indeed different from web behaviour.

Setting up a mobile site is not rocket science. Mobile web, as its name implies, is just the mobile version of the web.

Instead of HTML, the coding used is xHTML MP (mobile profile).

The standards are there. The web development team simply needs to implement them.

Mobile web is fundamentally the web adapted for the small screen.

Once the code is in place, all the web developer needs to do is pick particular sections from the newspaper’s content management system (CMS) and have the CMS send the relevant parts to the mobile version.

Of course if you want to provide a more complex offering involving advanced mobile functionalities - like advertising, classifieds search and location-based services - you would have to bring in specialists who focus on mobile web development.

There are not many mobile websites in Malaysia, and many of the news sites don’t have mobile versions.

If the Houston Chronicle’s and the Arizona Republic’s experiences are any measure of the potential of mobile web for news organisations, it would do news organisations well to start planning their mobile web strategy.

Oon Yeoh’s website www.oonyeoh.comis optimised for the mobile web.

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